Black or White: Texas Woman’s Story About Her Recent Discovery Seems a Little Shady

Demetria Lucas D’Oyley
Verda Byrd

My first real job out of college was working for People magazine. In the early 2000s, I was a stringer for the mid-Atlantic region. The fun part of my job description was running around Washington, D.C., attending events and asking well-known people about their latest project or intimate nuggets about their lives.

The grueling part was when something big would happen in the news and I'd be sent on a needle-in-a-haystack-like search to find a story like it but not quite it. For instance, in the case of Rachel Dolezal, who pretended to be black, I'd be assigned to find a black woman who pretended to be white.


I imagine this is how the story of Verda Byrd, a 72-year-old Texas woman who was raised as a black woman but says she recently discovered that she's white, came to be in People's pages.

According to People, Byrd was born the youngest of 10 children to white parents but was turned over to foster care when her father bailed on the family and her mother was injured in a trolley accident and couldn't take care of her anymore.

Despite being white, she was adopted by a black family in the 1940s. How did a black family adopt a white child in the 1940s? Byrd says her adopted mother had a very light complexion, so people believed she was white, too.

In 2013 Byrd found an adoption document that included her birth name. A search down the rabbit hole led to more adoption papers, and every paper listed Byrd as white, since she had been born to two white parents. Byrd provided People with photos of herself, her biological parents, her adoptive parents and even the white biological sisters she discovered. For me, this is where the story gets tricky.


Um, I need Byrd to do an ancestry DNA test and update the prescription on her glasses, because the story she's telling doesn't jibe with the pictures she shared.

Byrd says the mother who raised her was able to adopt her because Mom was light enough to pass. Not to go all Maury, but the pictures indicate that was a lie. To be fair, in a studio portrait of Mama Byrd, she does look quite light, but not white.


In two other pictures, one of which seems to have been taken around the same time as the portrait photo, Mama Byrd looks like what Mos Def and Talib Kweli once described as a "Brown Skin Lady." There's no mistaking she's black, and there's no way anyone was misled, confused or befuddled about her race.

But for the sake of Byrd's story, let's just assume the entire adoption community was blind and Mama Byrd was somehow mistaken for a white woman. By chance did they see her husband, who is clearly and obviously a black man?


By Byrd's version of events, the adoption agency would have seen a white woman married to a black man in Kansas City, Mo., at a time when interracial marriage was still illegal in the state. And this couple was given a "precious" white baby to raise? In the 1940s? This defies everything I know about race relations.

Then there are the pictures of Byrd, which makes things even more confusing. She shared a picture of herself as a child with her adoptive mother. Byrd is an unmistakably black child. It's not because her hair was worked on by black beauticians—it's the skin! This isn't a summer-tan complexion. Byrd is wearing what looks like a wool coat in the photo.


This and other pictures made me wonder how much time Byrd's biological mother may have spent around black people—specifically a black man while her husband wasn't home.

Byrd's biological mother isn't here to explain, but there's a way more logical (and simple) explanation for Byrd's "I'm black; no, wait! I'm white?" story: Byrd ain't full white.


Here's an explanation that does hold up easily: Her biological mom cheated on her husband with a black man and became pregnant. It would explain why, after 10 kids, Byrd's father would abandon the family—because as his daughter got older, she looked less white. It would also explain why, after her biological mom's alleged accident, it seems that only Byrd was given up for adoption.

Mom was hurt badly enough to give her youngest baby away but fine enough to raise the other nine kids alone or with help from her family? Huh? One of Byrd's new sisters is 58, 14 years younger than Byrd. Clearly Mom recovered from her injuries if she was still making babies nearly a decade and a half later.


Byrd’s being half-black would also explain why her obviously black parents—yes, both of them—were able to adopt an allegedly white baby with ease and why Byrd went seven decades of her life never questioning whether she was black: because she is, in fact, half-black.

It seems, to me anyway, that this story is less about a case of mistaken identity and more about a tradition that automatically assigns paternity to the husband of a married woman. A white man may be listed as the father on Byrd's birth certificate, but that doesn't mean she's biologically his. Where was Maury in the '40s, when this family clearly needed him? Where are Byrd's new glasses today, when she so clearly needs them?


Demetria Lucas D’Oyley is a contributing editor at The Root, a life coach and the author of Don’t Waste Your Pretty: The Go-to Guide for Making Smarter Decisions in Life & Love as well as A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life. Follow her on Twitter.

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